Lisa Clark is an author, life mentor, Writing Center Coordinator, and traveler. She's lived in Bulgaria for over twenty years and from there has ventured to countries on four continents. Her interests in history, science, and technology have inspired her to write both historical fiction and Sci Fi. She's currently working on a YA Sci Fi story featuring an AI narrator.
AND SO THE RAIN FELL
Cawood, England; August 1315
The land moaned as the sky lamented, spitting drop after drop in the thousands, millions, then billions. Grasses, crops, bushes, even small trees collapsed under the incessant deluge. Water gullied the ground, creating deep crevices. Fields flooded, burgeoning into ponds then shallow lakes. Daub and wattle huts sagged like old men laden with their own caskets. Thatch roofs seeped and drooled while, inside, runnels wove pathways through earthen floors. Leechlike in their thirst, the straw husks bedding animals sucked up moisture. In the fields, dripping cattle blinked back confusion as muddy water climbed to their shins then high enough to slick their bellies.
* * *
Ellyn stretched her arms above her head, flexing her fingers. Her eyes darted beneath their lids, attempting to recapture her dream. Henry had visited her again, his broad face happy. She wished to hold on to his image a few moments longer.
No. He was gone.
She rubbed her eyes while her mouth stretched into a yawn. Then she heard it: the steady pounding of rain on the soggy roof, dripping from the eaves.
Ellyn pushed aside her log headrest and shifted to prop herself up onto an elbow, which jabbed through the compressed straw of her tick to the rough plank beneath. Animals rustled in the far room, waking to another day of either stuffy dimness or wet daylight. Neither her parents nor her children stirred.
Ellyn wished she didn't have to wake them to another day like they'd had for the past three months. The moon hadn't peeked through the clouds the whole time. August was supposed to be the hottest, driest month of the year. This one carried only dismal days. At the best of times, English weather could be dreary, but never like this, swore her parents, the oldest residents of Cawood.
Ellyn slipped her bare feet into thick, short boots before they grazed the earthen floor, these days perennially damp. The animals, the day's cooking, the outside work, and, of course, the fulling of wool would not wait.
Though no one would see it, she forced her mouth into a smile. They'd hear it. "Good morning, Mother and Father. John, Luke, Mary, it's time to rise."
The children groaned. Ellyn didn’t want to face the rain, the shortfall in crops, the mud, the muck, and the mire, either. But she would do it. They would all do it.
* * *
Two hours later
In a large wooden vat, Hawise, Ellyn’s worker for the past year, was already steadily tramping on a length of unprocessed wool fabric, her eyes closed. If Ellyn didn’t know better, she’d wager that Hawise was at work in her sleep.
John tilted another bucket of urine into the vat beside Ellyn. At seventeen, he was a good boy—no, man—just like his father, Henry, had been.
When Ellyn and Henry married eighteen years earlier, she’d been a girl of fourteen. With a wry smile, she recalled the first time she’d stomped wool.
"All right now," Henry had said. "Time to reveal a bit of those pretty legs."
She'd checked to see no one was looking, though she needn’t have worried. Who else would visit the spot Henry had chosen for fulling outside Cawood's village fence? True, it lay only a short distance from the gate that opened during the day to allow merchants entrance, but vats of urine attracted no one.
She toed off her boots and tugged off thick knit socks and placed them out of splashing distance. Yanking on the fabric above her belt, she shortened her skirt length several inches.
"No, my love," Henry said, grinning, "this is how it's done." He worked his way around her, pulling the lower skirt fabric above her belt in quick jerks. Stepping back, he appraised her. "Hmm. Yes. That'll do." His fingers grazed her outer, exposed thigh. "If only we didn't have to work." He laughed when she slapped his hand.
Henry pecked her cheek before grasping her hand to steady her as she dipped one pointed toe into the vat. "Come on now." He urged her forward until she balanced on one foot as she swung her second leg over the brim. Squeezing her eyes shut to hold back tears, she covered her nose and mouth against the pungent, ripened urine. Why had her parents thought a fuller was a good match for her? Oh, yes. Fullers earned up to three times the wage of a field laborer.
Now she realized how much they deserved the money.
"Move," Henry instructed after stepping into a second vat, "like this." The liquid sloshed as he began marching in place over a large sheet of raw woven wool.
"But it stinks so." Flies gathered to the liquid feast below her and settled on her face and hands. When she sucked in a deep breath, ammonia fumes lurched from her throat to her gut. She bent over the edge of the vat and began to gag.
"Now, now," Henry said, exiting his own vat with lithe movements. He stepped into hers and embraced her. "'Twill be fine. You’ll get used to this, I promise." Covering her face with small kisses, he led her in a miniature dance over the miasma. After several minutes, he leaned back, grasping her shoulders, and glanced down. Her eyes followed. The clear gold liquid they’d started with had turned cloudy. "See now? Your magic feet have already begun the hard work of sealing the fibers."
She smiled weakly.
Back in his own vat, he began a vigorous pace. "We'll just stay here and talk all day long. How many people can pass the day so pleasantly? Say, did you happen to spot the red fabric the dyer offered on market day? 'Twas quite cheering. ’Twould bring out the rose in your cheeks, I’m thinking."
Ellyn turned from the vat to meet John's eyes. He looked so like his father at that age, with hair fair as summer straw and mossy green eyes.
"Will you be needing more?" He clutched an empty bucket.
"Nay, nay. 'Tis enough for now." She drew her skirt up above her belt with the swiftness of long practice. Holding onto John's shoulder for support, Ellyn stepped into the vat and glimpsed upward. Drips splattered through the roof of the lean-to her sons had constructed.
"’Tis leaking again. If you wish, I can hunt for more straw."
Ellyn noticed the rise of Hawise’s eyebrows. Through regular complaints, she voiced her desire for a drier workplace. Ellyn winced then swatted a biting fly who'd found her leg despite the mizzle. "Nay. There's scarce enough straw for the animals. We'll survive."
"Better you and Luke start collecting.” They always needed more urine.
* * *
Ellyn startled at the thunk thunk thunk on the door.
“Who could that be?” She stood from the stone hearth in the center of the room, wiping the back of one sooty hand on her forehead. Squatting at the circular fireplace to prepare their supper had left her woolen skirt damp. In the light of several rush lamps—glowing weakly these days for lack of animal fat—the skirt’s hue changed from deep forest at the bottom, lightening as it rose to her knees and finally settled on the dusky green of a praying mantis. Ellyn rounded the pot suspended over the fire.
The figure at the door seemed little more than an animated shadow.
"Eric? Is it you?”
“’Tis, sister. Greetings!”
“Come in, come in! Mother, Father, children, look who's here!"
Her parents rose from the three-legged stools by the rough-cut table to welcome their son.
Misty droplets not yet sucked into the fabric glimmered like diamond shavings on the shoulders of Eric’s cassock. He threw back his cowl, throwing a spray of water onto the door behind him.
Always a lean man, Eric’s face had grown gaunt.
"Good greetings, my family!"
Mary threw her arms around her uncle's waist and leaned against his chest. Though she never spoke of it, Ellyn noticed grief still lingering in her daughter a full year after her father's death. Her grandfather and brothers were kind to her, but Mary never laid her head on their laps at the end of the day the way she had with her father, begging for a story.
The image of Henry stroking Mary’s dark hair curled into Ellyn’s mind. Ah, but Henry was good at weaving tales.
“Join us at table, Uncle Eric,” John said, returning Ellyn’s attention to the present.
While her brother’s visit from his monastery in nearby York was a rare and pleasant surprise, one thought stabbed Ellyn: have we enough to share? During normal years, before the rains had washed away their stock of foodstuffs and reduced them to scavenging much of the day for victuals, she would have welcomed Eric to a mid-day dinner with generous slices of dark bread topped with cheese or curds. Oat cakes, porridge, or turnips would satisfy stomachs even after long hours at work, or mayhap a tasty salad of thyme, rosemary, fennel, and garlic splashed with vinegar and partnered with fish or tasty roasted pork. An abundance of ale or beer would wash it down. Even before Eric’s knock, Ellyn had worried that the measly pickings the family had scrounged—a scrawny hare, stuffed with acorns; two eggs from their hens, the first in days; and edible roots—might not be enough to ease the hunger pangs of John, upon whose chin soft whiskers had recently appeared, and Luke, whose own chin was not far behind.
Eric embraced his niece with one arm and glanced at the small table. "Hmm," he said, his eyes narrowing. "Something is missing."
Ellyn's pleasure at seeing Eric vanished like the long-lost sun behind piles of storm clouds. How dare he comment on their dearth? And he a churchman! She was ready to reprove him when he swung his hand forward, dangling a muslin bag. "Would it perchance be this?"
Mary bounded forward and pulled out not one, not two, but three loaves of hearty peasant bread.
"Wherever did you find bread?" Ellyn’s father asked.
Snatching a loaf from Mary, Luke held it up to his nose, closed his eyes, and inhaled deeply.
"A certain baker in York owes the priory a fair sum,” Eric said. “He hoped that the bread would buy him a bit of time to repay his loan."
How could Ellyn have doubted her brother’s intentions? “John and Luke, prithee, pull the chest over to sit on. Eric, sit on my stool. I’ll share the bench with the children.”
“Gramercy, Ellyn,” Eric said, scraping the stool closer to the table. "May I offer a word of thanks?"
As she bowed, Ellyn’s eyes remained opened, spying on her sons’ greedy gazes at the loaves.
"Our gracious and merciful Father,” Eric began. “Many these days are tired, weak, and hungry. Some are dying. Yet Thou hast given us so much to be thankful for. This food, yes, but also the gift of each other; a loving family to share a bite with. We thank Thee for these blessings."
After devouring the meal in near silence and draining shared cups of dark mead, brown globs of unnamed roots were the only things remaining. "Is something amiss?" Ellyn's mother asked, catching Eric’s grimace after lifting a bite to his lips. With her knife, she stabbed a small piece. "Ugh!” She spit it out “It tastes of mold." The others laughed and shoved their bowls away.
"People are resorting to far less wholesome food than this." Eric napkinned his lips. "Most have run out of the small stores of grain they brought indoors to dry.” He eyed the others. “Methinks this is not a new revelation. Many have resorted to eating bark and grasses. Peddlers and other travelers have carried stories of how bakers, unable to find flour for bread, have added─" He stopped to glance at Mary, rapt as an owl awaiting midnight scampering.
"Go on," John urged.
"You must tell us now, Uncle Eric," Luke said.
After a moment, he continued. "They've stretched their inadequate flour with wine dregs and other unwholesome ingredients. Some have even added pig droppings." Eric's mother gasped, clapping her hand over her mouth. His father shook his head slowly.
"Some in Cawood have taken to eating vermin and grubs,” Luke muttered, “even pigeon dung. With my own eyes, I saw a young boy gnawing on leather. And friends of mine spied a family, bloated from hunger, devouring a dead dog. They tore the animal's flesh from its body and ate it raw." Mary grimaced.
"Some say that God has abandoned us," John said. His gaze crawled up his uncle’s chest, chin, nose, and finally to his eyes.
"John!" Ellyn snapped.
Eric set his hand upon his sister's. "Let him speak."
"What answer gives the church?" John demanded.
"As for the speculation that God is striking us with famine as punishment for sin, I cannot entirely disagree. The faith of many has waned, the love of others grown cold. Rather than peace, our country has chosen to war against our neighbors. Corrupt people, full of vice, prey on the weak. Their pride will not be broken by anything less than disaster."
"But I'm not like that,” Mary protested. “And neither was Father. Why did he have to die?"
"Ofttimes innocents suffer the consequences of others’ sins,” Eric answered gently. “But if not for the Lord's mercy, we would have no life at all. On that, we must ground our hope."
Ellyn wasn’t listening. No one understood the reason behind Henry's death, but its memory pricked her mind often and clearly.
Ellyn hadn't intended to wake Henry with her moan that morning. He reached to touch her in the dark of the family bedroom.
"Ugh." She gingerly removed his hand.
"What's wrong?" he mumbled sleepily.
She moaned again. "'Tis only my monthly pain. This time ’tis worse than normal."
"'Tis always worse than normal." Before she could protest, he added, "Stay abed for a while. I'll tend to the family this morning."
She curled up tighter, answering him only with another throaty groan. Later, she wished she'd thanked him; embraced him for his understanding. Other women weren't blessed with caring husbands. Some would as soon beat their wives than allow them an extra moment of leisure, no matter the reason.
Ellyn understood, though. Those neighbors who worked the land outside Cawood's village fence lived on the brink of starvation for much of the year. Daily they bent to their workload to survive the bitter winter and through to the next harvest. Henry’s successful fulling business allowed him more grace. Ellyn's parents had also lived with them since John's birth and lifted many burdens.
The sun was glinting through clouds, happily illuminating gold, red, and orange leaves when Ellyn began her hike to the workplace later that morning. John and Luke would already have filled the treading vats and left to collect more urine.
While still a long way off, she spotted Henry stomping in place inside a barrel. Ellyn held one arm across her stomach, which was cramped and achy without the added provocation of marching in a barrelful of acrid urine.
A bullfinch warbling from the nearby woodland captured her attention for a moment.
A cackle drew her back to Henry. Approaching him, Ellyn spied a burst of uncombed orange hair and the disheveled clothing of Mad Maud. Poor Henry. He hated being with any woman save Ellyn. "Other women don’t understand a man who tromps in urine," he’d told her.
Mad Maud posed an altogether insurmountable challenge for him.
No one in Cawood could remember when the village had given her the sobriquet "Mad Maud," but it suited as well as “Crooked Tooth” for the boy whose front tooth had grown in sideways and “Pusty,” a lad with ugly facial papules.
Whether Maud was truly mad or merely knotty-pated, nobody knew. But she never fit well into village life. Three young men in succession had stepped forward to wed and bed Maud as the sole heir of sizeable acreage. All had died in accidents that only Maude had witnessed. Again single, Maud roamed the village, stopping from time to time to torment some and beg from others.
Typically, whenever Maud wandered to their fulling spot, Henry excused himself until she disappeared. Ellyn did her best to appease Maud, sometimes offering a chunk of bread.
A sudden gust pushed against Ellyn as she waded up the weedy hill, her eyes focused on the ground. She hiked her skirt up further to avoid the piercing grass seeds that worked their way into fabric and embedded themselves there, smugly assuming they'd found fertile soil.
"Now Maud, those are not yours." The wind carried Henry's rebuke as Maud rummaged through his clothes, piled on a low stump.
"Perchance you would have me nigh to you, heh?" came Maud’s teasing challenge.
Huffing heavily, Ellyn quickened her pace.
Mad Maud sauntered toward Henry, swaying her hips and shoulders in exaggerated fashion. "I like the looks of you, Fuller-man." She reached out to touch Henry's cheek with one hand while pulling open her blouse to reveal a breast with the other.
"Stop it, Maud," he snapped.
Ellyn, still too far off to help, saw Maud lean over the edge of the vat to splash Henry with urine. Droplets flicked up high and glistened in the sunlight before resuming their course toward Henry's plain muslin shirt.
"… need… man. I like… You… do." Maud's words were low, broken.
Henry's were not. "Stop it now, Maud!" He grabbed her wrist. "I have a wife. You know that. She wouldn't like what you’re doing. Now be gone!"
Ellyn began running, hiking her skirt higher still and caught a flash, a wink in the sunshine.
Maud held a long, metal object above her head.
"Stop!" Ellyn cried.
Mad Maud shoved Henry hard with the hand he had grasped, knocking him off balance. As he teetered backwards, her arm crashed down like an axe aimed at a chicken's neck then hit its mark: Henry's chest.
No longer watching where she stepped, Ellyn's foot plunged into a hole. Her ankle twisted sideways and she yelped in pain.
By the time she reached him, Henry was folded inside the vat. Only his head and shoulders remained above cloudy, rose-colored liquid. Mad Maud had disappeared like a shadow in mist.
“This cannot be true,” Ellyn repeated over and over as she muscled Henry from the vat. How could she lose her husband in such a witless killing? Others─many others─in Cawood and beyond died from sickness or accidents or other tragedies every month. But not her family. Not her husband.
Beyond grief, something else engulfed Ellyn: a gripping rage, powerful as a wolf's teeth savaging its prey. If Mad Maud hadn't disappeared… If Ellyn’s sons hadn't arrived and restrained her… If her swollen ankle hadn't hindered her… If the world hadn't spun so feverishly around her… Ellyn surely would have used Henry’s knife, bloodied on the ground nearby, to draw long, painful stripes across the wretched woman's face before severing her head from her body.
Witnessed in the act of killing, Mad Maud was confined in a monastery near York, shackled, alone, with scarcely enough food and water to sustain her. She would not last long.
Though Ellyn tried to bury her horrible, vindictive thoughts against Maud, they would not remain quashed.
A week after Henry’s death, Ellyn knelt before the parish priest on the church’s gritty floor and tearfully confessed the sin she was not sure how to categorize. ’Twasn’t murder, for she had not laid a finger on Mad Maud, and yet her thoughts, her anger, had been that dark.
“May the Lord pity and pardon you,” the priest said afterwards, standing above her with raised hand, “from thy sins of thought in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” His black cassock seemed to echo agreement with his words as the outer folds swelled silvery between deep ravines of blackness.
He helped Ellyn to her feet. “You have been sorely tempted, and yet temptation is common to those striving to live holy lives. You have resisted with strength from above. Continue to resist, child, and rest in His forgiveness.”
As she scuffled over the weedy churchyard afterwards, tears of gratitude streamed down Ellyn’s cheeks for the peace that descended on her like a cloud-light blanket. She was forgiven, free, her soul fresh and white as snow.
Wild flowers erupted near the edge of nearby woods, basking in the cooler, moister understory. Honeybees feasted on the ruby honeysuckle creeping up a stone cairn stacked many years earlier by builders no one remembered.
When Ellyn lay to sleep that night atop the gray woolen blanket she had shared with Henry, grief shrouded her as images of his final moments crashed into her mind. The small slice of joy she had allowed herself earlier evaporated. She tossed throughout the night, unsure she slept at all.
The next morn, as the family readied for the day, John chuckled at his brother for the sleepy, sloppy way he’d fastened his belt over his tunic. It was the first sound of happiness in the home since Henry’s death. The laugh was so unexpected, and yet so like Henry’s, that confusion momentarily paralyzed Ellyn at the return of her dead husband’s voice from the mouth of her son.
Later, she struggled to stretch a length of wet cloth on one of the family’s large drying frames, attaching it at the edge with a tenterhook. A song thrush—one of several birds Henry had mastered the call of—sounded its chirping whistle. Ellyn swung around, smiling, expecting to see Henry, to catch his playful smile, to hear whatever cheering word he’d deliver, to aid her in her chore.
The spot where she’d expected to see him blurred into smudgy grays and greens as her eyes filled.
Hours later, as she emerged from the thick wood after relieving herself, the whisper of a kiss caressed her lips in a gentle breeze. She stumbled backwards, falling against a thick bush, scarcely able to breathe. Her fingertips dug into the loamy earth as despair seized her, plunging her into a bottomless cavern, black and empty, neverending and profound. Then, writhing in devilish hues, rose the image of Mad Maud, first leering and then grimacing.
Hate and rage bubbled up inside Ellyn.
Nay, she thought, panicked, I cannot allow such thoughts. Not after I’ve been forgiven.
But her fury would not be suppressed. For minutes that stretched into an hour, it expanded until Luke came to look for her, worried that she wasn’t at the workplace when he returned from town with sloshing buckets of urine.
“I was tired and needed to rest,” she explained, adding the sin of lying to rage.
By the end of the day, deep shame blinded her like a hangman’s hood. She could scarcely see or think of anything else. I am no better than Maud.
Ellyn returned to the priest, once, twice, thrice in the following days, seeking absolution. After her fourth confession, he spoke to her sternly, almost harshly. “I’ve given you absolution. What more do you seek? What more can I do? Come crying to me no more. I can do nothing else.”
Afterwards, she gave up eating and working. Instead, she lay abed, her face to the wall, wishing for death, yet fearing it at the same time.
Ellyn’s father sent John to beg his Uncle Eric to come; perhaps he could help.
“Sister, you must turn from such thoughts,” Eric said after coaxing the truth from Ellyn. They sat on the small plank bench behind her house that Henry had built. From the grassy field nearby, the scent of cut stalks wafted their way, fresh and wholesome. On summer days, she and Henry used to sit there, inhaling the sweet air after spending hours over barrels of urine. Ellyn had grown used to the acrid smell. The golden excretions of the village provided them a living. Perhaps it also increased her delight in other fragrances: lilacs in the spring, bread fresh from the baker, an apple-wood fire, and pines in the snow.
“I have given up my desire to wreak vengeance on Maud, Eric,” she said, “but whenever something reminds me of Henry—dozens of times each day—I also recall the hatred I harbored against her. I cannot shake it from mind though I have repented a thousand times.”
Eric, holding one of Ellyn’s hands, said nothing for the longest time, even after she sniffled deeply, rubbed her eyes and nose with the back of her sleeve, and straightened on the bench. What was he waiting for? He was the churchman. Why did he not answer?
Soon frustration made her squeeze his hand. Speak!
Finally came a wispy smile. “I think you are confusing grief and pain with remembrance.”
She frowned. “Confusing them?”
“Memories of base thoughts are not sin.”
Nay? But they felt so like sin.
“Your remembrance of them will help you forgo such thoughts the next time a person hurts you. Turn such recollections to the Lord and trust Him to create from them something good.”
She paused to consider his words. When, she wondered, had Eric grown so wise?
He stood and took her hand as she rose, tucking it into the crook of his arm. “Is mother still cheered by daisies? Mayhap we can gather enough to make a small bouquet.”
* * *
All hopes for a reprieve from the cold, wet weather washed away as spring turned to summer. Grain seeds rotted in the ground. Only a few managed to poke their waterlogged heads through the soil and sprout. Then new rains pummeled those. People ate any seed grain that survived. Lacking sustenance for themselves and their livestock, many slaughtered their animals for meat. Rumors of cannibalism and grave robbery arose, conjuring images of desperate people digging up fresh corpses and cooking the flesh in skulls. The population of Cawood and regions far beyond its borders suffered diarrhea, bronchitis, pneumonia, and other ailments. To some degree, all became weak and helpless. Most grew hopeless.
Life for the fullers likewise worsened. With the drop in wages due to the weather, business slowed. Sheep, whose wool they depended on, began to die as parasitic worms infested their systems. A cold winter further devastated flocks, increasing the mortality of newborn lambs.
Ellyn refused to give up. “People still need warm clothing,” she told her family. “Famine or no, garments wear out and need replacing.” She still had a modest supply of woven cloth to treat, and the main tools of her trade─stomping feet and urine─remained available regardless of other deprivations. Nevertheless, she and her worker, Hawise, now worked only a few hours every other day, lacking strength to tramp more.
One morning, a biting breeze greeted them. Even huddling to the back of the lean-to failed to protect them from slanting needles of rain. Goose bumps sprouted on the upper, bared portions of Ellyn's legs. Speeding her steps helped with the cold, but after only a few minutes, she was winded and forced to slow.
When would the cold and rain end? Ellyn had heard that her brother and other priests were both fasting and praying. She could not forget the gauntness of Eric's face when he last visited. For some reason she could not fathom, God seemed either unwilling or unable to answer people’s prayers. In her heart, Ellyn refused to believe the latter. But could the former be true? Nay. It also was untenable.
Though not a babbler even on the brightest days, Hawise was uncommonly quiet this one. Ellyn bent at the waist and tilted her head, hoping to bring Hawise's attention back from wherever her mind had wandered. When she finally acknowledged Ellyn, Hawise’s eyes widened as though frightened for her life.
"What is it?" Even as she asked, an unreasoned dread filled Ellyn.
Hawise leaned back against the rim of her vat, covered her eyes, and began to wail.
"Oh! Oh!" Ellyn reached toward her, but couldn't stretch quite far enough. "Argh!" Then, as easily as Henry had done those many years ago, Ellyn stepped out of her vat. Pulling her skirt down, she strode toward Hawise.
"Come out. Come out of there, dear." Tenderly, she helped Hawise from the vat, hastily straightened her dress a bit, and then settled her atop one of the stumps that served them as chairs. Perching on the other, Ellyn placed her hand on Hawise's knee. "There now. Cry all you need."
For a long time, Hawise's back and shoulders convulsed. Even after her tears ended, misery crouched on her like a gargoyle.
"Can you tell me now? Did something happen to your husband?"
Hawise shook her head slowly.
"Then your son?"
"What, Hawise? Is Hugo sick?"
"No." The word’s harsh edge startled Ellyn.
"Do you truly want to know what happened?" Hawise spoke with a ragged honesty that confused Ellyn. She stared at the ground as she spoke. "You know this year has been difficult."
"And last year was the same. No bread. No grain. No vegetables or fruit. Not even salt to cure meat after we slaughtered our animals."
"Yea. ’Tis the same for us all."
"No. ’Tisn’t. My Randulf has been without work for months now. We've only my pay to buy a few crumbs for the three of us, and that's when crumbs can be found." Hawise eyes looked muddy and hard as pebbles.
"Randulf's never been overly fond of Hugo. He only took him on because of me. But Hugo whined constantly. 'Food. Food. All the little brat ever does is cry for food,' Randulf said. 'I'm sick of it.'"
Ellyn knew that Hawise had married her second husband around the same time Mad Maud had killed Henry, but had no inkling that things had gone so amiss since then. She held Hawise's hand a little tighter.
"Even after Randulf beat him, Hugo would moan for food. When I tried to soothe him, Randulf beat me, too."
Only now, when Hawise lifted the hair from her face, did Ellyn spot a plum-colored bruise staining her neck and cheek.
"I couldn't bear it anymore. I finally said yes, he could take the boy away, but I swear I never knew what he was planning.'" Hawise paused to search Ellyn’s eyes. "Yesterday afternoon's the last I seen of my boy. Randulf took him out to the woods and left him there, telling him he'd be back soon, after he catched us all a fat rabbit to eat." Once again, Hawise's eyes filled. "Every time I close my eyes I imagine what must have happened to him." She looked into Ellyn's eyes. "Wolves, I reckon. My poor boy."
"Well," Ellyn snapped, straightening and tossing away Hawise's hand, “at least you won't have to worry about angering Randulf anymore.”
As soon as she said it—as soon as she saw the sense of betrayal on Hawise's face—guilt stung Ellyn.
Hawise rose abruptly. "I thought you would understand. But, nay. Life is easy for you and your family. You cannot understand how desperate it is for your neighbors. May God damn you to hell, you miserable wretch."
"Hawise, please… I'm sorry." Then she thought, Nay, I don't think I am sorry. What kind of woman abandons her child because he's hungry?
Hawise stumbled away, her skirt still hitched up in back.
* * *
"Take some, Mother, Father," Ellyn insisted, impatience turning her words into a command. “It’ll strengthen you.” She shoved bone broth-filled bowls toward them, crediting the soup with more life-giving sustenance than it bore.
Her parents held open palms in front of them. The thin concoction of grasses boiled together with a bone was bland and weak, though they abstained for another reason. This was the sixth day of their voluntary fast. Soon, they'd be too weak to sit at the table.
Their announcement had come one night after the children fell asleep.
"Ellyn," her mother had whispered.
"What is it?"
"We must talk."
"We need to save the children." Her father’s voice was low but determined. "Your mother and I have decided to stop eating. With two less stomachs to fill, the rest of you may survive."
"What? Nay!" The children shifted in their sleep at Ellyn's raised voice.
"Yea. Your mother is 56. I'm 66. No others our age have survived. We've lived full lives. You and the children must have the same chance."
A week had passed, but Ellyn refused to release them. Bundled warmly in thick sheepskin cloaks with woolen hats and mittens, she and John left the cabin in search of food. The sun, almost too weak to declare morning’s arrival, lacked the strength to burn through drizzling clouds.
As they trudged through the dense woods near Cawood, a low grunting alerted them to a miracle: a pig. Months earlier, farmers with plans to recapture them later had marked and released the animals from their sties to grub and forage on their own.
When John sneaked forward to catch a better glimpse through dense branches, he saw the swine was unmarked; no one could claim it. He nodded at his mother, then lifted a finger to his lips before circling around brambles, creating a nearly silent squish with each step. The animal raised its head and sniffed, but soon resumed snuffling for roots.
With sharpened knife in hand, John crept from behind the thorny bush into the small clearing where the pig was sniffing and grunting. It lifted its head to appraise John with beady eyes before snuffling and searching an escape. Only then did John notice the faint yellow-brown stripes on its back. This was not a domesticated hog at all, but a juvenile feral pig.
The next moment, the heavy-shouldered animal charged through the undergrowth away from John straight into Ellyn with an enormous squeal that matched hers. She doubled over atop the beast, knocking it off its feet.
As John thrashed through the bushes, sharp thorns bit through his woolen jacket and leggings, tearing through to his skin. Moments later, he joined the writhing pile of flesh. “Stand back, mother!”
On her rump, Ellyn could not free herself from the writhing animal as it scrabbled to its feet.
John slammed his knife down toward the boar’s throat, inadvertently tearing through his mother’s woolen mittens, into the flesh of her palm, and through the other side.
Ellyn’s howl filled the forest.
John drew back the knife, cutting yet a wider trail through his mother’s hand. The next moment, he slashed the pig’s throat, creating a cascade of blood.
As the swine stilled, Ellyn moaned. Her mitten had sucked up so much blood it dripped and mingled with the swine’s, turning the snow watermelon red.
“Mother!” John’s hand shot to hers but stopped just short of grabbing it. “No!” He fell to his knees beside her. “Let me see.”
She gingerly worked the tattered mittens off to reveal a large gash on her palm and, on the back of her hand, skin sliced opened to the bone. Ellyn released a long exhalation as her head slumped to the side, nearly resting on the striped flank of the pig.
John’s widened eyes darted from his mother’s hand to the snow to the pig and beyond them to the path they’d walked from their home. “I need to take you home.” He slid one arm around Ellyn. “Come. I’ll carry you home.”
“Nay, John.” She wriggled away. “You will not leave the pig here to be eaten by wolves.”
“Forget the pig. I’ll return for it when you’re safe.”
“Nay! I am your mother. You will do as I say. Butcher it first.”
While Ellyn numbed her wound by jamming her hand into the snow, John speedily gutted and quartered the animal, adept at the job from helping his father with the family’s yearly pig slaughter.
Three hours later, Elly and John returned from the spot in the woods it had taken them twenty minutes to reach. Fresh meat stained the bag they’d brought along to collect roots and nuts and left a long, shallow trail of pink in the snow where John dragged it.
Despite their scrapes and bruises and Ellyn’s pierced hand, the day had not been a complete defeat. For yet a little while longer, they would evade starvation. Tonight the family, including Ellyn's parents, would eat their fill; she'd make sure they ate, even if it meant jamming the meat down their stubborn throats.
When Ellyn and John entered their hut, the sudden change from outdoor white to indoor dimness blinded them momentarily. "Grandmother? Grandfather?" John called.
No answer. No fire or rush lamps flickered. Save the low clucking of the chickens and scratching of vermin burrowed beneath the straw in the room beyond, the hut was empty. Luke and Mary were surely hunting out victuals, but where were Ellyn’s parents?
Ellyn sucked in a deep, tattered breath. They never left home when it was so cold out. She shivered at the thought of wind lashing against her parents’ frail bodies.
Then her world went black.
John and Luke spent the rest of the daylight hours searching for their grandparents while Mary kept watch over Ellyn.
Roast pork that evening and the next morning gave Mary strength to nurse her fevered mother while John and Luke continued looking.
At noon the following day, a boy raced toward Ellyn’s sons. "Are you searching for your elders?" He panted heavily though he'd only run a short distance.
"Yea. Have you seen them?" John said.
"Not I, but my mates saw 'em just a while back." He leaned forward to gobble another breath of icy air. "In the cemetery. They was laying atop the ground, waiting to be buried."
"Nay," Luke whispered.
"Yea, 'tis true. They're stiff as the tavern floorboards."
When Ellyn woke the next day to the news, a billowing wave of grief caught her up. She wondered if it might carry her away.
* * *
"Come now, Christine. ’Tisn’t so very bad. I've been at it for three years now and I'll wager I've the cleanest toenails in the village." Ellyn smiled as she listened to John instruct his new wife in the art of fulling.
"Here, I'll help you." He yanked the skirt of her dress up beneath her belt.
"Johnny! Not so high. What will people say?”
"Ah, 'tis only my mother here with us. She'll not say a word. Right, Mother?"
Ellyn laughed. "You can trust him, Christine. He knows his business."
The horror of the famine and its devastating losses finally lay behind Ellyn's family, village, and country. At last crops grew in season, providing the nourishment and livelihood people needed to survive. All three of Ellyn's children had married and, with her sons' wives helping with the fulling, she was able to stop and bask in the sun's warmth now and again.
She even had someone to share her home with. When, two years earlier, a battered and abandoned Hawise lay on her doorstep, Ellyn took her in. Like many others who'd reached the age of thirty-two, Hawise was hunched and sickly, unable to care for herself.
"Ach. What would I do without you?" Hawise often asked Ellyn. "I've no one else left in the world."
Ellyn had chosen not to reject Hawise. The woman didn’t need another person denouncing her; she’d excoriated herself nearly to death after losing Hugo. Eventually, Randulf abandoned her.
Each person’s actions, Ellyn reckoned, were mixed, caught up in sticky, elusive motives. Another could not judge them aright.
The intents of some, however, were purer than others.
For months Ellyn had viewed her parents’ suicides as selfish and she mentally heaped coals of heavy condemnation upon them. How could they leave her to care for her three children alone? How could they impose on her yet another, terrible grief when they knew how Henry’s death had afflicted her? They had chosen the easy way out while Ellyn was left to watch her children starve before her eyes, alone.
Those hadn’t been the sole results of their actions, though.
By the end of that winter, several entire families had died of hunger. Her parents’ sacrifice had enabled Ellyn and her children to survive; it was undoubtedly their greatest act of love.
In the end, Ellyn decided ’twas better to live in harmony with her neighbors than act as their judge.
"Oh, Hawise, you mustn't speak that way. ’Tis I who am blest to have a companion to share my home with."
Now, as she rejoined Hawise in the small hut, Ellyn dropped an armload of quartered and cut logs near the central fire. From the front of her skirt and smock she whisked sticky bits of bark and dirt.
“Time for a rest," she said. "Let's sit outside for a while and enjoy some of that mint tea you favor."
Though Hawise's grin revealed an empty mouth but for three teeth, it cheered Ellyn to see the smile.